Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Who Needs (Biological) Legs?

Who needs biological limbs when bionic limbs can be so much better?

It seems like yesterday when Aimee Mullins blew me away when she asked this question in a TED talk. But it was actually five years ago. At the time, she characterized her prosthetic legs as an asset - who else got to choose when they wanted to be 6'1" rather than 5'8"? I bumped into her in the elevator yesterday, and she exudes the same ebullience in person that she displays on stage. In her TED All Stars talk today, Mullins lamented that we humans spend more time reporting actualities than imagining what could be better. Her advice "Spend more time daydreaming, because daydreaming is the bridge between imagining and achieving". Lovely.

Someone who's bridging that gap between imagining and achieving is Hugh Herr, director of the Biomechatronics research group at MIT's media lab, both studies and lives the life of an amputee after losing his legs to frostbite after a climbing accident. He shares Mullins' opinion, as he's returned to climbing with some very special advantages: narrow prosthetic feet that let him use narrower crevices as footholds, prosthetic feet with ice cleats built-in, and the flexibility to extend his height, enabling to use handholds beyond his reach in the past. Because of his work at the Media Labs, he's called the Leader of the Bionic Age.

MIT Media Lab has studied interfaces throughout its history. But nowhere could interfaces be more important than when working to integrate bionic limbs with the human body.  Herr's work innovates interfaces on three fronts: mechanical, dynamic and electrical.

For the mechanical interface, Herr uses precise measurements and exact mathematical modelling of both the surface and internal structure of the body, so that bionic limbs fit exactly for unprecedented comfort.

The dynamic interface is even more interesting with special attention to making bionic knees and ankles react more dynamically. We saw the results of licking this problem in a video that compared someone walking clumsily upstairs with static prostheses, compared to the agility achieved with dynamically adaptive bionic limbs.

The last frontier is the electrical interface which will allow people to 'think' their bionic limbs into action.

Basically, Herr believes that humans need never be 'broken', because we can fix these physical disabilities through the merger of technology and human potential. He was joined on stage by Adrianne Haslett-Davis, who lost a leg in the Boston Marathon bombing. Adrianne was a keen ballroom dancer, and the MIT team went to work designing a specialized bionic limb for dancing. Her dance demonstration left her overcome with emotion, along with the audience.

The TED blog has posted a fascinating interview with Herr, if you want to read more. The piece is entitled "You've given me my body back". I think Adrianne got back more than her body. At West Park Healthcare Centre in Toronto where I sit on the board, we phrase it even more powerfully: "You've given me my life back".

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